MRED Alumnus Damon Duncan reviews construction efforts
The Robert Gilliam Building in Elgin, IL, a Chicago suburb, began construction Jan. 1, 2015, and had its ribbon cutting ceremony June 2016. The mid-rise building provides housing for low and moderate-income seniors. This new building is adjacent to an 11-story housing complex constructed in 1969. As part of the overall development project, the high-rise building was reconstructed, and its 150 studio apartments converted to 104 one-bedroom units.
The two buildings, dubbed the Central Park Towers Campus, provide a combined 164 affordable housing units for seniors. The new building was dedicated to Robert Gilliam, a former Elgin City Council member who died in 2015 after serving 40 years as councilman.
Campus amenities include a courtyard between the two buildings with barbecue grills, benches and common area. There is also a fifth-story rooftop garden, constructed under the guidance of the University of Illinois Extension. Students and faculty educate and assist residents in planting flowers, vegetables, fruits and herbs most likely to thrive in this setting. This is a unique amenity for a housing development of this type, Duncan said.
“We wanted to offer something that was unique,” said Duncan, who is president and CEO of the Elgin Housing Authority. “Traditionally affordable housing is basic. You get your unit and nothing special.”
These amenities allowed the project to meet Enterprise Green Communities criteria, which is non-profit organization that promotes the environmental benefits of sustainable construction practices for low-income families.
The campus also includes a movie room that can seat 10, a community room for special events and a recreation room with television, pool table and game area. The main floor of the high rise includes 3,200 square feet of offices space for the 15 Elgin Housing Authority staff members, along with 800-square feet of commercial space that conceivably could house a café-style sandwich or coffee shop.
A workforce development training center is also in development in office space previously occupied by the housing authority. This will be a classroom-style setting with computer work stations and presentation smartboards to serve Central Park Towers residents. The Elgin Community College offers free tuition to seniors, and Duncan and his staff are working with the college to offer courses in the workforce development center.
The need for this complex was justified by two housing authority market studies that found rent and property taxes in northern Illinois, specifically in metropolitan Chicago, high and the gap between low and moderate-income families wide. Additionally, there is a large number of elderly requiring housing, Duncan said.
“Previously, they might have had single-family homes, but due to early retirement or disability, their income will not afford that type residence.” Duncan said. “There are not many developers building affordable housing for seniors in the area.”
The project suffered some early setbacks because neighboring communities did not feel it was in best interest of the city to construct a mid-rise complex in an area dense with large buildings. This stalled the project seven months, but ultimately the Elgin City Council approved the project after Duncan and his staff met with neighboring communities to allay concerns.
Most housing authorities solicit a developer, but the Elgin Housing Authority served in this capacity, primarily due to Duncan’s experience and education in Auburn’s MRED program.
Duncan was working in Elgin when he first entered the MRED program in 2014.
“I had a project going on at the time, and the courses I took were in lock step with the development process,” Duncan said. “Actually I couldn’t tell whether I was at work or in class. That’s how seamless the entire process was for me.”
“The program – for what I was doing, am doing and will be doing in the future – met my needs perfectly.”
Emphasis on finance, construction and market analysis helped him in every stage of this development project. “All of that was helpful with the entire project, from concept to pre-construction, construction to post construction and ongoing property management,” Duncan said.
Duncan moved from Atlanta to Elgin in 2012 to become housing authority president and CEO. He has been involved in housing development since 1992, working with housing authorities in Atlanta, White Plains, New York City, Detroit and Alexandria, LA.
“A lot of people take the (MRED) program because they have aspirations to do things. I was doing what I aspired to do, but now I am doing it to a greater degree with a higher level of understanding and therefore can be more strategic in how I advance,” Duncan said.